By Ronald J. Martin
About 40 Fresnans gathered, many wearing black, to memorialize the 47 people who died in a fiery explosion of a runaway train of tank cars that an oil company sent down the track by the town of Lac- Mégantic, Quebec, with highly explosive crude from the North Dakota Bakken oil fields.
The oil in the tank cars is more explosive than other oil because it contains high amounts of butane and propane. These gasses could be removed at the wellhead, but they are left in. Then more volatile substances are added, “diluents,” to permit the thick bottom-of-the-barrel oil to flow in and out of the tank cars. This explosive mixture is shipped in cars not designed to protect cargo of this degree of flammability.
Participants in the vigil viewed panels with portraits and brief bios of about half the victims displayed above a photo of the explosion, a mushroom cloud glowing orange with flame, with people looking on, probably fire fighters helplessly realizing they had no resources to combat the strange and awful fire. As participants viewed the victim photos and maps of the oil train blast zone of Fresno (a mile on each side of the railroad tracks), they heard the music of the Raging Grannies, singing traditional melodies with lyrics decrying oil-train and fracking dangers.
Memorializers heard Stan Santos of the Communication Workers of America condemning the danger to which the oil companies are exposing Americans. They heard about some of the 90 other actions around the nation memorializing the Lac-Mégantic victims, and the organizations helping coordinate them: locally, those organizations included Fresnans Against Fracking, the Tehipite Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) with their performing unit the Raging Grannies. Around the nation, Forest Ethics took the lead assisted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, Clean Water Action, the Central California Environmental Justice Network and the California Environmental Justice Coalition.
The volume of fracked oil shipped is increasing, with the gallons shipped last year more than gallons shipped in the previous five years. As U.S. oil “production” increases with fracking of the North Dakota oil shale, getting the oil to refineries is a problem without pipelines, like the canceled Keystone pipeline. Investor Warren Buffet filled this gap by supplying tank cars to move the oil.
Unfortunately, the tank cars are not designed for explosive cargo, thus the National Transportation Safety Board (a federal agency) predicts 10 derailments and explosions each year. There are plans to build thicker, stronger tank cars. Implementation of standards is scheduled for some years from now, as talks proceed. The current tank cars and tracks are rated for safety at 11 miles per hour along most rail lines. In the meantime, the oil is pulled down the tracks at speeds of 50 mph.
After hearing from the speakers and performers, the group was encouraged to fan out to the waiting passengers and their families and distribute informational fliers about the dangers of explosive crude by rail. Dozens of fliers went out. Many people were receptive, agreeing that there is danger, even if they had not heard about it. Some wanted to find out where to learn more, and others wanted to know what they could do to oppose the dangerous shipping. Many realized the connection between burning the last of our hard-to-get oil and climate change and the need to stop using fossil fuel.
Those who would like to help oppose this irresponsible behavior by the petroleum corporations can meet with Fresnans Against Fracking on the third Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. at Marie Callender’s (1781 E Shaw Ave.)
Ronald J. Martin, Ph.D.